Train Travel: January’s New Experience

I had never been on a train.

I’ve been on the train at Disneyland, and on the train in Durango, CO but, as fun as they are, I suppose they don’t actually qualify as legitimate train travel.

My little sister and her fiance moved to a middle of nowhere town about an hour and half from Barstow in Southern California this past weekend.  We drove their cars out, but the nearest airport was not in fact very near, so the most sensical option was to drive into Barstow and take the train back to Albuquerque.  In lieu of a bucket list, I’m trying to do one completely new and adventurous thing per month, so I figured this would be a great way to kick-off the year.

I have more pictures of this sign than any normal person should

I have more pictures of this sign than any normal person should

I honestly didn’t know that interstate train travel still existed on such a large scale in this country.  I’ve never known anyone who has traveled by train, and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a commercial or advertisement. I figured the railroads were reserved for hauling cargo instead of people.

I’ve also been convinced that the people who rode trains were hobos or bandits (WHERE DID THIS EVEN COME FROM?).  Also, Murder on the Orient Express suggested that I might get stabbed by a whole gang of people if I slept.  Pretty sure there were some dementors on the Hogwarts Express too…

But, a quick look on the Amtrak website showed us that train travel is alive and well with routes all over the place.  So, in need of a way to get home, and keeping my eyes open for a new adventure for January, we decided to book 2 seats on the Southwest Chief.

Our less than 48 hour trip into California involved some In-n-Out Burger (probably 85% of the reason we went), a quick (and I mean very quick) drive through some really sketchy towns, some unloading and unpacking, and that’s just about it.

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Johannesburg, CA…population 165 + 4 animal carcasses

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I went to college in the Bay Area, so I’ve done the drive through Barstow/general armpit of California many, many times, but I forgot just how un-“California” it all actually is (my sister does have a beautiful palm tree in her front yard thank goodness). I also forgot how cold it can get at night.  We went on a 3.5 mile run in Barstow on Sunday morning pre-sunrise, and I didn’t pack any layers, so I was running in 37 degrees in shorts and a tank top.  Which apparently was more reasonable than hopping on the hotel treadmill or you know, skipping it.  Silly runners.

After the driving and unpacking (and watching the first half of the Broncos/Patriots game at a Sports Bar), my future brother-in-law dropped us off at the Barstow train station (why are train stations always in the scariest parts of town?).  The place was kind of dark and abandoned at 9:40, and we weren’t at all positive that we were in the right place because there wasn’t a departure/arrival board and the building was locked. With the moon shining and the street lamps illuminating the tracks, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a contemplative Dagny Taggert standing on the platform, waiting for The Comet to arrive.

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Eventually the train rolled up right on schedule, and with very little “to-do,” we boarded (they checked our tickets after we were seated).  I have to say I’m a bit sad that the conductor didn’t yell “all aboard!”

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Our car was already about half full of sleepy passengers when we boarded (it originates in LA and travels all the way to Chicago, so we were the 4th or 5th stop).  We took our seats and reclined back, eager to sleep.

I think if we’d been a bit more prepared, we would have been quite comfortable.  But we didn’t bring blankets or pillows, so we were cold and slightly contorted.  For a higher premium, we could have reserved private sleeper cars, which I think would have been great if we were spending two nights on the train.  The train made a few stops along the way (they were very fast stops), but aside from other trains passing right next to us on the track (which was kind of scary and loud) it was a pretty quiet ride.  They also had power outlets at each seat, so we were able to charge our phones while we slept.

When we woke up the next morning, we headed to the snack cart for some $2 coffee, and watched the sunrise along the desert horizon from the observation car, which was set up with chairs facing the window.

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We went to the dining car for breakfast, and it felt like a throwback to a more glamorous time complete with white table clothes and vases full of fresh flowers, all while watching the western New Mexico landscape unfold before our eyes. The railroad travels into those Route 66 roadside towns that the interstate bypasses, so, we got to see a lot of the charm that we usually miss traveling through I-40.

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We pulled into Albuquerque about an hour earlier than scheduled, sufficiently fed and caffeinated, and very open to the idea of more train travel.

At a time when it seems that airlines add new fees while eliminating leg room on a daily basis, and a pleasant experience in the sky has been replaced with no-nonsense safety protocols to prevent terrorist attacks, I have to say that the very reasonably priced train fare  ($75 per person from Barstow to Albuquerque, or $76 per person from LA to Albuquerque) coupled with the cheerful and accommodating attitude of the staff have really changed my thinking. Other selling points: the hassle-free boarding process (no security line!), convenient overnight itineraries that don’t make you feel like you are wasting time, ample space, and the ability to get up and stretch or walk around at any time.  I also felt very safe which was truthfully one of our biggest concerns (and misconceptions) about train travel.  No hobos!

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I’m also thinking that train travel would be so much more comfortable after a marathon than a plane or car.  Instead of waiting around in an airport and trying to make your legs not ache after sitting for a few hours, I could walk around at my leisure on a train, prop my feet up, and eat a decent meal at a real table.  Seriously.  It’s like my whole outlook on travel has changed.  Even my mom said she would do it again (and that’s saying something).

So, January’s new experience has been successfully crossed off.

I hope you are having a wonderful week despite all of the weather weirdness. It was 10 degrees here this morning which I know is warmer than most places. STAY WARM!

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16 thoughts on “Train Travel: January’s New Experience

    • I think this is a really good way to travel with kids. There was a mom with 4 in front of us, and when they started getting restless, they were able to walk to the observation car. The ABQ/LA route is scheduled pretty conveniently. And you really cAn’t beat the price.

  1. So fun! I rode the train last month for the first time since I was about 8 years old and really enjoyed it. It was a short trip, just a few hours, and it was dark, but the overall experience (minus the wait time because I got to the station more than an hour early) was nice. The gal that was seated next to me and I hit it off and spent most of the ride immersed in deep conversation which passed time pretty quickly. I’d jump at the chance to go on a longer train adventure!

    • I was really surprised how well it worked out. Awesome that you got to meet people! I noticed that train travelers seem to be more talkative than plane passengers. We also had a lot of Amish people, and they were super friendly!

  2. I used to go to school in Syracuse, NY and I lived in Chicago and there was a 9pm to 9am train ride that was a straight shot between the two and I used to take it over every break, it was so much easier than flying and there is so much leg room!

  3. I’ve taken the Amtrak from Washington DC to NYC and it was really fast and relatively painless. That said, I do think European train travel >> East Coast train travel, so hopefully when you get to that visit-Europe-bucket-list-item, you’ll get to experience that for yourself!

    • I’ve always heard amazing things about train travel in Europe and I’ve always assumed that if I make it out there, I’d visit multiple regions and counties, so maybe subliminally I wanted to practice for when we do go?!?! Was the NYC/DC line Amtrak? It seems like the east has so many more public transportation options.

      • Yes, it was the NYC/DC Amtrak line. It was very easy and fast, but surprisingly expensive. Buses are way cheaper, and there are fancy ones now with wifi and outlets.

        One thing you don’t want to do on Spanish trains is order the 4-cheese pizza from the food car. It is the smelliest, grossest looking pizza ever. (Granted, this was about 15 years ago, so take my advice with a huge grain of salt!)

  4. I agree with Jen about European train travel; if you were very satisfied and impressed with Amtrak, just wait until you board a Deutsche Bahn (German) or Renfe (Spain) train. They’re what you’ve just described but on fast trains, and Renfe trains show films too! I’ve never been on a train in Canada, I always opted for that pay-for-everything-but-get-nothing air travel instead.

    • Apparently some amtrak trains do have a movie car. I think it would really help pass the time!

      I think plane travel has just gotten to the point where people are ready to explore other alternatives that they might not have considered before.

    • That’s my hope! My husband and I thought it might be cool to do a cross country train trip…you get to see the same sights as you would on a road trip, but you don’t have to worry about driving or getting lost!

  5. The beautiful and creepy 395 in California! How long was the trip from Barstow to ABQ? I took a train from LA to Seattle with my mom when I was 10 and it was pretty awesome but as an adult I still haven’t given it another shot outside of some short trips to San Diego. Looks like a good time though!

    • We left about 10pm and got to ABQ at about 10:45am, so about 13 hours with the time change. I just like that I slept through most of it! We were actually looking into a west coast train trip from SF to Vancouver. So many places to visit!

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